The Book That Made Me A Reader
David Wroblewski on Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book
It helps to imagine your reading life as a staircase rather than a doorway—a winding staircase, with each tread a book, and each riser your incautious love for that book's characters, or plot, which kept you writhing, or the writer's way with language, which felt so especially right. The funny thing about The Jungle Book was that I didn't go head-over-heels crazy for it, never experienced the obsessive infatuation that flared and sputtered over so many other books during my apprenticeship as a reader. Instead, The Jungle Book introduced me to the slow-burn style of readerly devotion. I think I was twelve or thirteen years old.
I already knew the story, or so I imagined; I'd been offhandedly and somewhat abashedly entertained whenever the animated Disney film appeared on TV. When the real thing fell into my hands, I remember feeling shock: Though clearly a children's book, this was not childish at all—more real than a fable, yet also (and this was puzzling) more real than if it had been written realistically. And then there was the lyric mastery of the prose, the surprise of encountering verse and story combined, the attention to detail ("Mowgli's Brothers," for example, opens with a precise, accurate image of Father Wolf stretching his paws after a long sleep—a gesture I'd seen our own dogs perform every day), and the level of sheer invention! Most surprising of all, there was this vein of desolate sorrow running through the Mowgli stories: if not the loss of a peaceable kingdom, exactly, then the loss of some pure, ruthless innocence. All of which had been saccharinized in the animation. But Kipling's prose was textured, lavish, thoughtful—and severe. The words went right past my skin and soaked into my marrow.
For some reason, it's easy to forget that by the end of the second Jungle Book, Mowgli has not only killed the tiger Shere Khan, he has also (after a hunter has been sent to kill him) destroyed the village where he was born. The wolf pack has disintegrated, Baloo is old and blind, and Mother and Father Wolf have died. Mowgli belongs wholly neither to the village nor to the jungle, an outcome I have always found essentially tragic. "I know not what I know," he cries, reluctantly deciding to return to the human world, "but I am drawn by both feet. How shall I leave these nights?"
I could see that I was reading the last page of a book I loved, and Mowgli's words echoed my feelings exactly.
When I look at these stories now, I'm surprised by the economy of the writing. Kipling's prose remains far more lush in my memory than on the page, perhaps due to his process for revision: "Take of well-ground Indian Ink as much as suffices and a camel-hair brush proportionate to the inter-spaces of your lines. In an auspicious hour, read your final draft and consider faithfully every paragraph, sentence and word, blacking out where requisite. Let it lie by to drain as long as possible. At the end of that time, re-read and you should find that it will bear a second shortening.... Maybe a shade more brushwork will then indicate or impose itself. If not, praise Allah and let it go."
I'm also surprised by The Jungle Book's mostly unrecognized influence. Years later, in Tolkien, I would hear strong echoes of Kipling's language—and the deep trope of language-as-power. When I understood the broad arc of the Harry Potter books, I thought immediately of the parallels with Mowgli: both singled out from birth by a predator, both magically protected in their infancy, both prodigies in an unconventional school, centered around language and law, and both destined to face their adversary before coming of age.
I guess I've owned seven or eight different editions of The Jungle Book over the years. It's a talismanic book for me, one I seek out and turn over in my hands whenever I'm at the bookstore and can't find something I really want to read. I can only round up five copies at the moment, which grieves me, since this means others, including my original, have been lost. The 1987 Penguin Classics edition with the Daniel Carlin introduction was my workhorse while writing The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Two other editions I recommend are Christopher Wormell's illustrated "Mowgli's Brothers" with its breathtaking woodcuts— I'm especially partial to his rendering of Akela lying on the Council Rock, and Mowgli working the burrs out of a packmate's coat—and, on audio, the magnificent 1983 Windsor Davies recordings.
I don't love all of Kipling. Some I find boring, pedantic, or, wherever the joys and agonies of empire take center stage, too antiquated even to be repellent. But the Jungle Books are different: a case of an already great writer surpassing himself. "My Daemon was with me in the Jungle Books," Kipling wrote, "and I took good care to walk delicately lest he should withdraw. I know that he did not, because when those books were finished they said so themselves with, almost, the water-hammer click of a tap turned off."
What more could any writer, or any reader, hope for?
Photo by Marion Ettlinger
David Wroblewski is the author of the internationally bestselling novel The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle a 2008 Oprah Book Club pick, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, winner of the 2008 Colorado Book Award, Indie Choice Best Author Discovery award, and the Midwest Bookseller Association's Choice award. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was selected as one of the best books of 2008 by numerous magazines and newspapers around the country, and has been translated into over 25 languages.
He currently makes his home in Colorado with the writer Kimberly McClintock, their dog Lola, and their woefully undisciplined cat, Mitsou.